Their biggest threat, our greatest weapon: African leaders respond to social media activism

In late 2020, the Nigerian government declared war on Jack Dorsey and his entire social media site, Twitter. The battle was fought differently, as tech experts replaced soldiers, guns were now harsh words spewed in interviews and the casualties reached a record-breaking number of 40 million. On an economic front, Nigeria lost a purported $243 million within two months due to a dramatic loss of international investments as well as several online news agencies and businesses experiencing severe financial setbacks.

In removing the theatrics of what was essentially a social media ban, one must question why the Nigerian government would go to such extreme lengths to stop internet communication along with all the commercial, educational and social benefits that come with it in pursuit of such war.

This dramatic declaration came after the app removed a tweet by President Buhari because it violated Twitter’s policy on abusive behavior. Buhari reasoned that Twitter was repressive and undignified. Lai Mohammed, Nigerian minister of communication, later evolved the government’s stance by stating that the site was allowing its platform to be used by people who enjoyed promoting ‘the disintegration of Nigeria’.

As journalist Fisayo Soyombo argues, the suspension of twitter in Nigeria was never about Twitter, social media or even the very real threat of violent dissidents. It was always about the government’s inability to control or influence the flow of information. By removing it or limiting it for a time, they could defeat the last standing space for citizens to express their honest thoughts and hold the government accountable for their failings.

Nigeria is just one African country that has experienced an internet or social media shutdown due to political or social unrest. In total, over 25 governments across the continent have attempted to limit social media and/or the internet since 2013. Unfortunately, the practice does not appear to be losing traction, as it has become a welcomed extension of authoritarian rule in dictatorships and pseudo-democracies worldwide.

Why are most sub-Saharan African governments so authoritarian in nature?

To understand why social media has become such a contentious issue for governments accustomed to controlling speech, it is important to analyse African politics in a colonial and post-colonial world briefly. Most African democracies are still works in progress, immature in their overall national identity and, in several cases, still reeling from the effects of an oppressive colonial rule.

Colonial powers such as France, Belgium and England plundered the continent’s resources while enslaving the natives and hindering any form of cultural development.

Cheeseman and Fisher argue that colonial rule not only influenced current political practices in sub-Saharan Africa (through the forced implementation of democracy and the erasure of cultural and economic practices), but are directly responsible for the violent, dictatorial leaders that sprung up in the post-colonial world. For instance, colonialism encouraged the practice of election-rigging, as western powers needed to maintain some form of authority in their colonies. There is evidence that Britain rigged elections to ensure that their preferred candidates emerged victorious in both Nigeria and Kenya.

Colonialism, particularly in West Africa, also instilled a culture of political coercion, misuse and abuse of power by law enforcement and the complete disregard for human life. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an estimated 10 million natives died under King Leopold’s dictatorial rule. Today, the DRC government displays a shockingly similar indifference to the suffering of their people in pursuit of complete power and wealth.

Another reason for sub-Saharan leaders’ authoritarianism lies in the tactics used during various liberation struggles. The vast majority of post-colonial leaders were independence fighters or leaders. For example, President Mugabe and Emmerson Mnangagwa fought in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, Hastings Banda was instrumental in Malawi’s independence before becoming its leader and former Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta was significant in turning his country from a colony to an independent republic.

To succeed against western armies, which were better-equipped, experienced and organised than the enslaved masses, liberation leaders had to create and adapt to strict and unforgiving military practices. An incredible degree of discipline was instituted, and any opposing views or signs of disobedience were met with swift and violent responses. ‘Snitches’ or informants who would deliver news to the colonial rulers during the liberation wars fought in Zimbabwe and Ghana were punished severely. Their roles in the respective conflicts correlated to matters of life and death. These pre-colonial military practices were brought into the political arena post-independence, except there was no longer a large, abusive enemy to conquer. There was only absolute power to maintain.

What power does social media hold?

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas once argued that the printing press was instrumental in the democratisation of Europe, as it provided a space for intellectual discord among politically engaged citizens, who would then be able to challenge the authoritative powers.

State-owned broadcasting networks are common, especially in Senegal, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and the DRC. They exist solely to promote the government’s personal agendas, maintain political sovereignty and spread notions of national prosperity and peace.

image taken from Report Focus News

The rapid growth of the internet, an electronic, global portal where information is infinite and accessible to anyone with a connection, poses a natural threat and challenges their unique position of privilege. During political elections, state media bombard the public with positive images of the current government and various smear campaigns against opposition parties.

As argued by Essoungou, where state-owned media promotes or shows favourability toward candidates from the ruling party, millions of Africans and African politicians turn to social media as an ‘efficient conduit’ to the political system and, to a certain degree, consider it a more reliable source of news and information.

This threat to authoritarian governments becomes more potent when analysing the growth of the digital communication landscape with social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. 45% of North Africans and 41% of Southern Africans use social media. Facebook reported that upwards of 15% of Africans use the site every day, compared to just 11% of Asians. Opposition parties in Kenya, Rwanda and Chad have larger followings on social media than the sitting governments. Moreover, online campaigns to mobilise supporters and enact change have been hugely successful in South Africa, Nigeria and, more significantly, in Egypt during the Arab Spring.

China’s response to the threat of social media/ the internet was swift, as they could construct a digital firewall around their borders. Although it can easily be circumnavigated, it has proven successful in curbing the spread of certain information. African governments, which do not have the financial capacity to develop a nationwide firewall, can only resort to implementing various shutdowns and bans, spanning from a mere three days to a whole year depending on whether the political or social crisis has been neutralised.

The governments give varying, pretentious justifications for these shutdowns. For example, the Ethiopian and Chadian leaders have argued that they were combating hate speech and fake news by shutting down social media. The Sudanese government state that they were curbing exam cheating, while Tanzanian and Zimbabwean governments argue that shutting down social media was a matter of national security. However, every internet disruption has been timed around moments of social and political unrest and, more jarringly, elections.

However, there is an argument to be made about the political radicalisation that comes with spending too much time on social media, as the platforms are designed to exploit our biases and keep us ‘logged in’. One must still question why African leaders are willing to utilise this system when it benefits their narrative but are quick to ‘shut it down’ when the algorithm supports political opponents or groups that attempt to hold them accountable for their corrupt practices. Both Nigerian and Ugandan leaders had millions of followers on their Twitter pages and enjoyed disseminating information through them before being temporarily suspended for violating Twitter’s policies and enduring a significant uptake in public criticism.

Do social media bans achieve their purposes?

Whether it is to protect national security or suppress freedom of speech, social media bans can not accurately be evaluated in terms of success or failure in Africa. On the one hand, the Egyptian ban on social media (during the Arab spring in 2011) had the complete opposite outcome than the intended one. The government had restricted access to social media under the presumption that there would be no more news spread and protests organised on these platforms; but, in fact, more people turned to the streets out of frustration and a need to seek information.

A study on sub-Saharan African elections completed in 2018 found that in countries where shutdowns were implemented, there was more electoral violence during these elections than those that did not have internet shutdowns.

The recent Ugandan ban had mixed results. It succeeded in temporarily stopping the spread of ‘misinformation’ surrounding supposed ballot stuffing and prevented the public from reading the opposition candidate’s impassioned, patriotic rants. However, evidence suggests that more Ugandans became even more politically engaged online after the ban was lifted and that contempt for the government increased.

South African Development and communications expert Matshediso Setai stated the ‘Trumpism’ phenomenon that many African leaders fear only works for a developed country, ‘where social media following correlates to popularity and voter turnout in an election’. Although many Africans have joined social media sites and have become vocal about their political alliances, millions more do not even have a phone and thus, there exists a digital divide. Several other analysts argue that shutdowns are not only a frantic and overly dramatic reaction to opposition by leaders but are also incredibly costly and have severe social and economic drawbacks.

Image taken from Quartz Africa

The Social and economic effects

There are huge implications to shutting down sectors of the internet for an entire country in the digitised world we currently live in. Many African entrepreneurs have turned to internet advertising to promote their work and have gained considerable customer bases upon having a social media page. A growing number of students have become increasingly reliant on the internet and platforms such as YouTube to aid them with their studies.

Estimates state that in 2021 alone, the Democratic Republic of Congo lost $3 million due to its internet and social media shutdown, while Uganda lost upwards of $1.2 million, Chad lost $20 million and Senegal lost a whopping $121 million on the day it restricted access to the internet. These are gigantic losses for developing nations that could have been avoided.

On a more concerning note, human rights advocates have noted that there has been a sudden increase in governments adopting more radical approaches in surveillance and repression through tracking critical users online and targeting them in real life. Vocal Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was jailed earlier this year after exposing government secrets and tweeting a series of threads highlighting their corruption further. Several of his followers reported ‘strange, newly formed accounts’ suddenly engaging with them.

Despite this, as it appears, most of the African youth generally appear unfazed by their government’s continuous attempts at harassment or intimidation. There has been a surge of internet users in Senegal, Zimbabwe and Nigeria after a ban, and the pool of discourse continues to deepen.

Conclusion

The Nigerian Twitter ban ended in mid-2021, with the government stating that it had come to some form of an agreement with Twitter as to how it would operate in the country.

Nigeria’s gigantic, tech-savvy demographic were resilient in their pursuit of freedom of speech. They were able to circumvent the ban by looking up VPNs, searching for new communication apps and, in some cases, even creating new online spaces for discord.

What African governments need to understand is that their vastly young populations will not react to authoritarian rule in the same manner as previous generations. Technology is a brand new tool that is shaping societies all over the world and providing new means of business, communication and lifestyles.

The need to control information for the safety and protection of citizens is universal and, in some cases, essential. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was called to the American congress for this very reason and even admitted that social platforms ought to do more to regulate and/or protect certain content for the sake of the general public.

However, in almost all cases where a social media ban has been implemented in Africa, the primary concerns of the governments were to control the political narrative, swift out opponents and suppress the rights of its citizens. As a result of pursuing these goals, these shutdowns have come at great social, economic and even political costs.

Although having been on the receiving end of much of the vitriol from governments, Jack Dorsey manages still to see the continent’s potential in the tech market, stating that ‘Africa will define the future’. The phrase carries a powerful message, as millions of young people across the continent become more educated, begin to understand their complex histories, study the development of the outside world and see more clearly that they deserve to be liberated from the dark ages and can use any means necessary to attain that freedom.

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